Musicians are Workers, Too

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CVII, No. 9September, 2007

Janet Becker, LCSW, Ph.D.

For most of us, Labor Day weekend marks the symbolic end of summer, even though warm weather continues and the official change of season doesn’t arrive for another few weeks.

In addition to parades and picnics, we usually associate Labor Day with returning from summer vacations, and getting our children ready to go back to school.

However, as Local 802 members, Labor Day has special significance, which most of us do not know or think much about. It seems fitting, then, to consider this holiday’s history, and its special relevance to us today.

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to American workers, honoring their achievements and essential contributions to the social, economic, and spiritual well-being of our country.

The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 on Tuesday, Sept. 5, in New York City. In 1884, the first Monday in September became the agreed upon day to observe the occasion.

The Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingman’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread, as labor organizations continued to grow.

Nevertheless, Labor Day was not recognized by national or state governments until 1894.

The early 1890’s had seen tumultuous and widespread labor unrest, precipitated by massive wage reductions and layoffs of railroad workers in Chicago.

President Grover Cleveland, having declared the labor strike a federal crime in 1893, later succumbed to the growing political pressure of the labor movement in 1894 (a presidential election year).

Hoping to gain votes from the nation’s workers, he urged Congress to pass a law in order to appease them. Although Cleveland was not re-elected, Labor Day, as a national holiday, was born.

Since the mid-1800’s, musicians had been exploring ways to improve their professional lives, forming mutual aid societies to provide loans, financial assistance, death benefits, and support during illness or extended unemployment.

The AFM itself was chartered by the American Federation of Labor in 1886. And Local 802 was chartered in 1921. Its mission statement expresses its unity with the labor movement, striving to “unite to fight for the common interests of all musicians.”

The statement also asserts Local 802’s commitment to “upholding the integrity of live musical performance, to advancing the vital role of music in education, and in the economic, cultural and social life of our community and beyond.”

The emphasis on the union’s efforts to preserve and protect live music addresses a salient and troublesome issue for today’s musicians.

Opportunities to perform and be paid for it are diminishing, as technology presents employers with less costly — and less soulful! — alternatives.

In addition to the reduced work and income resulting from this trend, the psychological and spiritual costs to musicians are often considerable.

Furthermore, even when work opportunities do present themselves, musicians often end up selling themselves short.

Either disinclined or unskilled regarding the business aspects of their professions, artists are often at a disadvantage in negotiations, and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation by employers.

However, when working under a union contract, individual musicians can have the strength and power of collectivity behind them.

And as union members, musicians have access to personalized support as well.

At the Musicians’ Assistance Program office, we frequently hear from musicians who are struggling to make ends meet.

As work opportunities dwindle, they not only face financial need, but demoralization as well.

It can be hard to hold onto a sense of value as a musician when you are replaced by a machine.

These musicians are in need of help, in material, emotional and — perhaps — spiritual ways.

With the help of our office and also Local 802’s Emergency Relief Fund, eligible members may qualify for financial assistance.

In addition, our social workers are able to provide psychological and practical help regarding work-related and financial management issues.

We offer short-term counseling, as well as referrals to many fine resources which provide a variety of specialized services.

In the spirit of Labor Day and workers’ solidarity, the MAP program extends to all 802 members our ongoing invitation to call upon us for needed support, whether financial, emotional, or practical, so that we can unite with you to strengthen your voice.

In solidarity, there is strength.